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Handwriting: The minimum requirements (blog series)


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#1 share Hofmann

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Posted 23 April 2014 - 06:27 PM

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I wrote a series on handwriting, and imron suggested I make it a thread, as more people look at threads, but I kind of like how all the content is organized in a blog, so I'm starting this thread and linking to the blog.

 

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

 

I considered writing a bit about technique/motor skills but I decided that was outside the scope of "the minimum requirements" and gets too subjective. It leaves the realm of science and steps into the bounds of art. And by "art" I mean both a refined skill and something that has to do with aesthetics. Of course I have some strong preferences regarding certain aesthetic properties, but these things don't make the difference between a right and wrong character. And so, I just decided to end this series on "the minimum requirements" with some extra practice in the form of a quiz, and leave discussion of other stuff to a thread maybe.

 

So, regarding technique. I hope you have looked into ergonomic pen grips. All else being equal, right-handed people will have an easier time writing Chinese. High pressure stroke endings are always on the right. Horizontal strokes are slanted up on the right. This comes not from aesthetics but biology. Anyway, assuming right-handedness the generally recommended grip is to have the back of the stick resting on the web between your index finger and thumb, while holding the front in three points with your thumb tip, index finger tip, and side of your middle finger, not necessarily equidistant to the tip.

 

About writing instruments. You should notice that although my examples were written with a pencil, there was some line width variation. As you can imagine, this is achieved by varying pressure, as paper is soft. The effect is easier to achieve if the paper is on a soft surface, such as more paper. A ballpoint pen can also achieve a similar effect. As for fountain pens, I often read recommendations for them and I might be guilty of recommending them in the past. Although they do require much less pressure than most writing instruments, line width variation is difficult to achieve with them. The thickness is always about the width of the nib. This is OK when writing a language that uses Latin characters, but for Chinese, when in regular script (楷書) one might desire some variation and in cursive (行書) or supercursive (草書, I'm not satisfied with current translations of this term) variation is required, else essential and nonessential strokes are not differentiated. Chinese is easiest to write with a brush. It requires even less pressure than a fountain pen and benefits from having an axis of rotation high up off the plane of the paper. If only they were not so fragile and fussy, a brush would still be the most common writing instrument for Chinese.

 

Another thing. All else being equal, vertical orthography looks better. In regular script and cursive, "horizontal" strokes slant up at the right, while vertical strokes are mostly truly vertical. In horizontal orthography, the "horizontal" strokes form imaginary lines that stagger against each other from character to character. In vertical orthography, the vertical lines follow text direction, so there is no such effect. And of course, supercursive must be written vertically. Doing otherwise would be like attempting to write English in cursive vertically.

 

About grids. In the series you can see by my haphazard alignment that I pretty much ignored the grids. However, they can help you align things and judge distances if you care to use them. Different types will help with different things. For casual writing I prefer a single vertical dashed line, marking the center of the line of text, and no boundaries between characters, allowing me to make them as tall or short as I want.


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#2 share realmayo

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Posted 23 April 2014 - 07:14 PM

Extremely interesting, thanks for posting it all.

 

You mention pens/brushes: what do you think of things like this: http://www.muji.eu/p...&Sub=54&PID=495

Someone bought me one recently, I thought it was lot of fun. But all the 捺s I wrote with it were ugly, couldn't get it to thicken nicely at the end.


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#3 share Shelley

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Posted 23 April 2014 - 10:22 PM

imron is right but i don't know why threads are looked at more than blogs. For me I suppose its because they some how seem private or at least for a select few, don't ask me why, I know they are in the public domain but still it feels like reading someones diary.

 

Anyway a bit off topic there.

 

I tried one of those brush pens, I thought it would be great, but it was rubbish.

 

I have taken to using for practice a Pilot frixion ball pen, not just because it is erasable but it feels nice and it flows well. In fact i have taken to using these in various colours for all my Chinese work. I like different colours so I can highlite and make things clear.

 

A standard small tip felt pen is also good for me.

 

Thanks for putting in the effort Hofmann and for bring it to our attention here.


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#4 share Hofmann

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Posted 23 April 2014 - 11:34 PM

I've tried brush pens before. It was long ago, possibly one of these. Probably the synthetic "wolf" hair one. It sucked. It felt like a mop. Maybe some of the natural hair brushes would be better.


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#5 share Shelley

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Posted 24 April 2014 - 12:23 AM

I went and looked at your link Hofmann, and I found this seems brilliant - http://www.blueheron...products_id=793

 

Anybody tried it?

 

I might give it a go, put it on my Christmas/Birthday list :)


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#6 share Geiko

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Posted 24 April 2014 - 04:50 PM

Shelley, I used this kind of paper, but I didn't like it too much. I guess it was because of water, it feels too liquid compared to real ink. Besides, I think it's good to review what you've written in order to see your mistakes, if your writings vanish, you can't do that. But of course it has its pros too.
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#7 share Hofmann

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Posted 25 April 2014 - 11:57 AM

I have a few pieces of paper like that. Because it wrinkles when it gets wet, and needs to be ironed before using it again, it's just as much trouble as using ink and normal paper.


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#8 share Shelley

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Posted 25 April 2014 - 05:50 PM

So one of those things that looks like a good idea but in real life its not. Oh well at least I didn't waste my time and money and more to the point I didn't get disappointed..


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#9 share hedwards

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Posted 25 April 2014 - 11:21 PM

I think these are standards to work towards, but in my experience, I saw very, very few Chinese people writing like this. Most of the time it was illegible scribbles that I couldn't even hazard a guess at because there's a sort of cursive system that a lot of them seem to use.

 

Still, this is good information and well worth aspiring to, even if in quite a few of the cases cited I doubt the Chinese would have any difficulty recognizing the intended character. The mistakes here were generally closer than what I was seeing from handwriting. And don't get me started on the calligraphy.

 

BTW, if you know anything about that cursive system that would make for an extremely useful blog series, because, I can't possibly be the only one that literally can't make heads or tails of it most of the time.


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#10 share Hofmann

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Posted 25 April 2014 - 11:56 PM

Well, let's just see if you're talking about what I think you're talking about and if they can't write or you can't read. Any characters here you can't read?

2m7zsd2.jpg


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#11 share hedwards

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Posted 26 April 2014 - 12:27 AM

Some of those I can read. Some of those I can't read because I don't know them. But the ones that I'm thinking of there are the ones like the fifth one down in the  fourth column and below, where I can't even identify enough of the radicals to look the word up or even enter it into Pleco.

 

I think there's clearly a trick to learning to read it, but sort of like cursive in English, it does seem like it's something that needs to be specifically learned to effectively pick up because it isn't random.


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#12 share imron

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Posted 26 April 2014 - 08:47 AM

BTW, if you know anything about that cursive system that would make for an extremely useful blog series

If you are just talking about cursive handwriting in common everyday use that may or may not follow the 'correct' way of doing things, you may find the following thread useful.  The beginning of it is a little outdated, but if you read it all, there are recommendations for several books that may be helpful.


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#13 share Hofmann

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Posted 26 April 2014 - 09:12 AM

Well that character is 苞. A lot of cursive (行書) reading comes down to knowing how something in regular script can be represented in cursive. Learning to write cursive correctly is the same process as regular script: look at examples, look for the rules, and follow them. Characters are still very modular in cursive so you can learn them in components, unlike supercursive (草書) where many characters have to be learned as a whole.


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#14 share imron

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Posted 26 April 2014 - 09:35 AM

Well that character is 苞

Unless he wasn't following the correct reading order and meant fourth column from the left, rather than the right, in which case he was talking about , (a variant of 鉴/鑒)


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#15 share hedwards

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Posted 26 April 2014 - 09:52 AM

@imron, I meant from the left, I've only come across Chinese written top to bottom then right to left once, the vast majority of the text I've come across has been written left to right then top to down. One of the things I admire about Chinese text is that it's so flexible in that regard.

 

I do see how that was misinterpreted, it does clash with the normal system of referring to columns from the left to the right like you would on a map.

 

I'll take a look at that thread, I don't care about being able to write cursive, but I'd like to be able to read at least some of it. My preference is to write more the way this blog series is pushing.


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#16 share Shelley

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Posted 27 April 2014 - 10:28 AM

Just finished reading through the blog. Excellent stuff. I like your distinction between trying to get it right and not quite achieving it and just plain wrong.

Using correct stroke order in my opion helps with remembering the character, giving it the right "look"and the correct order usually is the best for ease of writing. In other words the correct order is there for a good reason.

I will have a more thorough look at the blog and maybe leave some comments.

Good stuff.
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#17 share Hofmann

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Posted 03 July 2014 - 05:36 AM

I've added a post about cursive.


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#18 share hedwards

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Posted 03 July 2014 - 07:51 AM

Thanks a lot, I'll be sure to read that carefully.


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#19 share MPhillips

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Posted 03 July 2014 - 09:29 AM

It's a very minor quibble but line width variation isn't at all hard to achieve with a fountain pen as long as you're using an italic nib--it's how most traditional styles of Western calligraphy are done. That's not to say an italic-nibbed pen is all that appropriate for character writing, having tried it I'd say it looked more artistic than if I'd used a ball-point pen, but of course still not right.
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#20 share Hofmann

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Posted 04 July 2014 - 05:24 PM

I've thought up a few technical exercises that might be useful. First, a stroke distribution exercise, where you try to distribute a number of horizontal or vertical strokes evenly while also centering the whole group, like this:
14t9a1z.jpg
 
I would like to note that you should not write many long horizontal strokes, because this is an awkward thing to do for someone used to following the 一字不二捺 rule. I recommend just staying around the middle like I did.
 
As for the slope of "horizontal" strokes, I find that in the best examples of regular script, the slope is around 9 or 10 degrees. If you use a row of six squares and draw a diagonal across them, the line will be about 9 degrees.
23v1gz.jpg
 
If you draw many of these lightly, they can serve as "horizontal" guides. Of course, in all the best examples, the slope of a horizontal stroke varies with context, but as I said in the blog series, it isn't critical that you do anything in particular with them. It's perfectly legal to keep them all the same slope.
 
Another thing is that I think the 一字不二捺 rule is the most broken rule of all, and correcting it yields the most improvement in terms of aesthetics (although I still prefer to treat it as a rule and not an aesthetic suggestion). An exercise you can do is something I recently added to Part 3. Go through a list of each character in your vocabulary and think about which stroke or component is extended to the right. If you're not sure, look it up. If you don't think you can do it in your head, write them out and circle the rightmost extender as I did below. In each character there can only be one, and you must be sure which one it is. Also make sure there are no ㇏, ㇂, 乚, or long horizontal strokes that are not circled (except in 心), e.g. look how I wrote 國, 學, 起, 老, 聲.
25au8u1.jpg

 

I have a feeling some people find this rule very esoteric. It isn't really; most people follow it most of the time without really understanding it. It's the whole reason why the fourth stroke of 林 isn't the same as the last stroke. Because they don't fully understand it, they will either mess up sometimes, or be unsure of themselves.


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